Thursday, September 13, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #73 - Part 5

First anniversary of Occupy Wall Street

I finally managed to notice an anniversary before the date rather than after.

September 17 is first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. On September 17, 2011, a group of demonstrators sought to symbolically "occupy" Wall Street by occupying Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan.

The initial group was largely composed of young, recent college graduates who, in the words of an organizer among migrant farmworkers in Florida (which shows the reach and awareness the movement achieved) "burned their eyebrows off studying" only to emerge from school with a useless degree, no jobs, no job prospects, and bone-crushing mountains of debt.

And they realized as they looked around them, looked at their situation, as they looked at that darkened future, it sank in: The game was rigged from beginning. The game had been rigged from the beginning in favor of and for the benefit of those they aptly labeled the 1%. The game was rigged - not just against them, but against everyone who was not part of that power elite. That the yawning gap, the chasm, between them and us, between the ultra-rich and the rest, was not just a factor in the economy, it was the defining, the central, the controlling fact of American economic life.

They may not have known the particular numbers, the exact statistics. They may have been unaware of the piles of data.

They may not have known that the top 1% owns 38% of the privately held wealth in the United States, double what it was a few decades ago.

They may not have known that the top 1% gets 20% of all national income, double what it was in 1970.

They may not have known that the claims about job growth are Potemkin villages, myths, false facades, thoroughly dishonest, because they hide the reality of shrinking futures: According to a study by the National Employment Law Project, three-fifths of all jobs lost during the recession paid middle-income wages, while roughly three-fifths of new jobs created during the so-called recovery, the most anemic since the great depression, pay low wages. We are becoming a low-wage nation.

They may not have known that as a result, there are fewer good jobs in the economy today than there were 11 years ago.

But that's nothing new, and something else they may not have known that real hourly wages for the average worker in the United States peaked in 1970, and 42 years of economic growth later, the average worker is now worse off than they were those 42 years ago.

They may not have known that, according to the Census Bureau, almost one in two Americans is poor or low income, the highest level ever recorded.

They may not have known any of that - but they did know the feel of it. They did know their own sense of frustration, of creeping desperation, was not theirs alone but was spread through, suffused through, our society as even people with good jobs, with decent incomes and decent benefits, still had to fret that one layoff, one unexpected expense, one health crisis, could wipe out everything they had.

And so they occupied. And they rallied. And they marched. And they stayed. And suddenly the proof of what they sensed was seen in several, then dozens, then hundreds of places across the country, then in dozens, hundreds more around the world. "Occupy" was everywhere. Indeed, that became the phrase: "Occupy everywhere."

Even the corporate media had to take notice - that being helped along, admittedly, by some typical but usually better hidden thuggery on the part of the NYPD. But the corporate media did have to notice. The politicians and even some among the punditry had to take notice. This was no longer just a camp of young folks who could be dismissed with sneers, as Newt Grinch tried to do, of "take a bath" and "get a job." It was a genuine movement; more than that, it was a revolt. A revolt. And one that, like almost every revolt, came as a surprise even to those supposed experts and authorities who prided themselves on their awareness of "the public mood." References to "the 1%" and "the 99%" became common fare even among the chattering classes and the phrase "income inequality" started to appear often enough that there was a risk that enough people - including even that handful of reachable politicians - might take it seriously enough to have to actually do something about it.

Worst of all, the movement had some clear successes, including stopping several foreclosures. That gave people hope that they could not just object to the corporate state, to the bank overlords, they could defy them - and sometimes win.

That was too much, that was too far. Occupy had to be stopped. More than that, it had to be crushed.

First came the velvet glove, the sudden surge of deeply concerned op-eds and statements from government officials in November about how it was time for Occupy to if you will fold its tents and get involved in "real" political actions to, this must have been some focus-group-tested phrase because they seemed all to say it, to "make the changes we need to make." Why, if they knew these were changes that needed to be made they couldn't go ahead and do it on their own but had to have Occupy come and do it for them went unexplained.

The point, however, is that what they were saying to Occupy was stop doing what you're doing and start using all the methods that have been used all along. Start using the familiar methods, the ones we're comfortable with, the ones that "serious" people have been using these past few decades. Stick with the methods "serious" people have been using even as inequality has grown, even as the biggest banks have just gotten bigger, the methods used even as employee pay shrinks to the smallest share of the economy in over 80 years, even as corporate profits grow to the largest share of the economy in over 80 years, use the familiar, the comfortable, the "serious" methods that have been used even as top 1% gets the biggest share of total national income in over 80 years. Forget this encampment business, stick to methods that have been used as decades of economic progress has been undone. Stick to those methods.

I've said before that the strength of the Occupy movement was that it was something that the Empire could not dismiss. It wasn't a one-day event, it was an on-going, in your face, presence that the Empire did not know how to ignore. So when the velvet glove failed, the iron fist came down.

It came down in a coordinated wave of assaults, both by courts and cops, on Occupy encampments around the country, almost all using the same tactics, including limiting press coverage, almost all using the same excuses about "unsanitary and unsafe conditions" in the encampments as the excuse. This is no conspiracy theory: Documents obtained from the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland by a Freedom of Information Act filing makes it evident that yes, there was a nationally coordinated campaign to disrupt and crush the Occupy Movement.

And they largely succeeded. Not in eliminating the movement, because that wasn't required to crush it. All that stuff you used to hear about crushing movements, all the stuff about arrest them all or kill the leaders - some of which has surely happened here, just ask any historian of the labor movement - that's not what's done today. All of that is old hat. Passe. No, what's required today to destroy a movement is to make it invisible. To break it down into a series of local bits and pieces, so that anyone seeing you won't know you're part of anything bigger.

And that's what's happened to - been done to - Occupy with the eager approval of the punditry: For example, on September 11, court officers and police shut down Occupy Hong Kong, which had been going on for 306 days. The New York Times, with obvious relief, referred to that encampment as "representing the last vestiges of what was once a global movement."

But Occupy is not gone; there have been and are actions. For example, early this month Occupy Chicago held four days of actions at Obama campaign headquarters to, they said, "highlight the contradictions between President Obama's promise of 'hope and change' and his actual policy decisions." They have also marched in solidarity with striking teachers. Occupy Atlanta turned out hundreds of people for a march to demand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide mortgage relief for struggling homeowners.

On September 9, Occupy Wall Street itself had a "burn your debt" rally in which people publicly burned debt notifications to protest the lack of assistance for students and others buried in massive debts. A working group within OWS is credited by union organizers with "a very important role" in a successful campaign to get a union for workers at a chain of cafes in the city.

And there are of course plans for an action in the city to mark the anniversary.

The point is, for the most part these are seen by those not directly involved as strictly local events with strictly local awareness. Local stories with strictly local impact, if any. The organizers and participants surely are aware of the variety of other events going on in other areas, but the people in the community are not. To them, Occupy is something that no longer exists and the energizing, the, if I can use the cliche, empowering feeling of being connected to something larger, something bigger, something not just local but part of something national, is gone. That, today, is how you crush a movement: You don't expect to eliminate it, you don't even try - that can just bring it more attention. Instead, you just fragment and so demoralize it.

But that victory is likely to be short-lived: The frustration is still there. The creeping desperation is still there. The sources of the frustration and desperation continue to drip their poison into our national bloodstream. The devastation wrought by our power elite has expanded beyond the traditional bounds of the forgotten, the destitute, the isolated; the communities it has wrecked now include more than Native American reservations and the trailer camps of migrant workers, have spread beyond the Gulf coast of Mississippi and the back hills of Appalachia and the inner cities of the Northeast and all the other places we have long allowed ourselves to forget, because the greed of that power elite is insatiable and they won't be satisfied until they have taken all the meat, gnawed on the bone, and sucked out the marrow, leaving us with only what fell from the table, the scraps they thought it not worth the effort to pick up.

Resistance will happen. Revolt will happen. Please, by all that is holy and human in this world, let it be a nonviolent one. But revolt will happen. No one can say just what will spark it or when - but whenever it does come, it will come, as it always does, as a surprise.


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